My most recent tattoo design request has come from a man with strong religious identity and a family he loves.
Naturally, he wanted a tattoo to reflect all these qualities. There were only 3 major elements to the tattoo that he wanted:
1. A cross-shaped tree or wooden cross; either way it should look gnarled and twisted up.
2. Carvings of his kids' and wife's initials into the cross.
3. An owl, because his kids love owls.
So right off the bat, it made sense to go with a tree shaped up like a cross rather than a wooden cross. Not only would the owl belong there, but it would allow me the opportunity to create the religious symbol he wanted in a subtle, natural way. It made the finished sketch look more interesting. Besides, it was also a fitting place to carve the initials into.
It took me much longer that I thought to fabricate a tree. Even after getting ideas from reference images, I couldn't help my obsessive need to make it every single chunk of tree unique. It was a fun exercise to “see” where the tree was on the canvas. I went with the flow of the random swipes of my stylus and then when it got to the details, I nitpicked. That's a fair balance, timeconsuming as it was.
Then came the owl… I'd never drawn an owl before and it's exactly this kind of general inexperience that is one of the reasons why I'm so glad for these requests…I wouldn't have just sat down someplace and tried to draw an owl for fun. I pulled up a few reference images of the horned owl specifically, because I asked my client if he had a preference for the species and he mentioned only this one. The usual process whenever you find yourself new to a subject is to find references (photos or in real life), do a few studies until you “know” this subject enough to create it on your own, then do exactly that. With the time constraint I was under, I could only do 1 study before diving into incorporating it into the design, but I definitely learned a surprising amount of information just from the one time.
For example, I had no idea horned owls had big, furry looking feet. I thought of lion paws as I drew those. I also realized just how complex the patterns of the feathers are on a single owl. This allowed me to have a bit of creative freedom to be abstract. I didn't need to copy it from a picture as long as I achieved the right textures for the right places. Just goes to show how important studying is.
Finally, the carvings. I had initially asked my client if he had any particular species of tree in mind, because depending on that the carving could have different characteristics, like color, fraying of the bark, etc. A maple tree carving would look different than a pine tree carving, which would look different from a birch tree carving, and so on. One will find that when they really care about the project, they will consider things like this to be important for the overall effect/look of the end result. He didn't have a tree in mind and the tree wasn't going to have leaves anyway, but I'm very glad I asked.
My client seemed very pleased with this, which only reinforces the idea of studying every subject that is new to me before I try to include it in and illustration/design. The more I study, the more I can commit it to memory and then be able to create it without the need for a reference. Quite an important investment of my time and effort if I hope to succeed as a freelance artist.